Rick Tumlinson OpEd
A lthough a bit more sophisticated in the ways of space than the anti-hero of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide …,” the galaxy into which our mild-mannered new NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has been thrown is every bit as bizarre, insane and confusing.
Seemingly sane administrators past have found themselves at a loss when confronted by the enormity of the challenge, often unable to even grasp what was going on around them. One famous example of this was Dan Goldin, who wandered the halls of NASA mumbling “faster, better, cheaper” even as the space station he had been tasked to build crept from its 1992 completion date and an original budget of $8 billion to infinity and something far north of $80 billion.
His successor, Sean O’Keefe, who some (not I of course) called a bean-counting bureaucrat bereft of any expertise in the ways of space, at least tried to listen to others, having been told by the Big Boss in the White House to go to the Moon and Mars.
Unfortunately, his solution was to put together 13 roadmap committees composed of hundreds of members to chart a course for him. Even two people trying to read a roadmap — let alone give someone else directions — more often than not results in running out of gas, becoming lost or getting into a car wreck. One can only imagine how much of our national wealth we would have expended, how many millennia it would have taken, and which part of Jupiter we might have ended up on, had this exercise continued.
And now we have Mr. Griffin. An engineer with space, military, academic and private-sector credentials, obviously far over qualified for the job, and yet not quite smart enough to have acted as if he didn’t hear the question when he was asked to take over the U.S. space agency.
As he swept into what I call “the Space Palace” with his loyal and entrusted team, Mr. (“Call me Mike”) Griffin began a task that has driven many over the edge and out of the airlock — changing NASA into a lean mean exploration machine.
Tossing the roadmaps, and grabbing the tiller, Mr. Mike and his “G Men” are now running headlong into the key and overarching philosophical split that defines the space community and yes, dare I say it, the paradigm shift that is underway in our field. ( Sorry, but if ever there was one, this is it).
To help our able hero on his quest, I humbly offer the first of several thoughts from Rick’s Handy Dandy Guide to Space, so that even though he may get lost amongst the cubicles, he will at least understand what and who he is dealing with in this incestuous and fascinating part of the galaxy we call the space community.
To begin, I offer the first part of my own completely biased view of the “Who?”
At the top level of this taxonomy are two types of personalities one is likely to encounter in our field. First come a lot of very nice people who are all about “Doing” space. They are simply thrilled to death to be a part of this great adventure, hang around (or become) space heroes, work on space projects etc. More than just fans, often times their lives are dedicated to being a part of this great “space thang.” Let’s call them “Space Doodlers — SDs.” (Doodlers believe that space flight is impossible without acronyms).
SDs range from academics to even some astronauts, and some of them (especially the ones with badges, which are very important to have and prove you are a registered Space Doodler) are making a living at it and are allowed to hang around government buildings.
In fact, gatherings of SDs often form themselves into things called centers and programs, led by tribal heads known as “Managers” enabled by a special type of SD called a “Contractor,” who works for an “Aerospace Corporation,” which is something like a real commercial company, but not really .
Although working for the center or program, the contractor is often related to it, designed it or was paid a lot of money to consult with the manager who “baselined the mission requirements that drove the program development.” Since until recently there was no real mission and the “program” in question rarely gets developed to the point of being finished, no one knows what this actually means, but it sounds really neat — especially to other wearers of badges.
On the other hand, we have the “New Space Pioneers.” This group has the hubris to believe this whole thing is about opening space, rather than “doing” it. Often they are a bit gruff, impatient, wheeling and dealing, with a demanding “get it done” and “show me results” attitude. They eschew such well-worn space skill sets as Viewgraph 101 (now PowerPoint 101), meeting management, business golfing and progress report making — in favor of building stuff (occasionally blowing up stuff) and making things happen.
They are prone to exaggeration at times, and can smell an open checkbook from
many kilometers away. They engage in “space swarming” behavior when in the presence of “potential investors” (this being someone who is known to have picked up the lunch tab at least once) and representatives of the media.
New Space Pioneers come in two subsets, Free Range New Space Pioneers, who wander around outside of the traditional space community (often called “entrepreneurs” or “hungry”) and Employed New Space Pioneers, who, although full of spirit and drive, are trapped in centers, programs or corporations, and while envious of their Free Range kin, prefer to eat regularly until the chance comes to fly, fly like a bird.
Often frustrated and angry, not only are they disruptive in what would otherwise be a leisurely schedule of meetings, presentations and lunches thrown by their doodler managers, like the best of the New Space Entrepreneurs, they have the nerve to think that a Real Rocket going to a Real Place is more fun than really cool pictures of a Real Rocket going to a Real Place.
So, given that the new goal sent down by the Boss’s Boss is to actually get out there and go to those real places, the doodlers are about to find life getting a bit rough. Until now, our space program has been guided by the concept of “here comes the Boss — look busy” with no concept of the what and why of what they are looking busy doing, or exactly when the busyness should result in a product.
It must be very disconcerting to them in briefings to have a boss who actually asks questions about what they are doing that make sense. Worse, I am sure, some of them are near meltdown at the prospect of actually having to finish a project successfully — and God forbid — on a budget!
With any luck, and just a little common sense, Mr. Mike just might be able to help some of those who have become doodlers over the years find their “inner Pioneer.” He will probably even find that many, from managers to contractors, have been ready and waiting for a captain who knows what he is doing, and has the necessary internal plumbing to do it.
With the New Space Pioneers out there ready and willing to join him as equal partners, America might at last have the right team and the right leader to take our first steps into the galaxy — this time to stay.
As for the rest, well, there is always the airlock.
Rick Tumlinson is a founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.